A university researcher explains how issues of race, culture, and trust have made her reluctant to become more involved at her son’s school.
By Jung-ah Choi
I am the mother of a 7-year-old boy from South Korea, and I’m also a college faculty member, teaching and writing about social justice, race, and education. I truly enjoy being both a mom and a faculty member, but juggling motherhood and career tends to make my daily life intense and fast-paced. Like many other moms, my day starts with packing my son’s lunch, getting him ready, and driving him to school. Later, I pick him up, cook dinner, check homework, supervise video game time, give him a bath, and put him to bed. Mixed in with these duties are course prepping, grading, responding to student emails, teaching, and working on my own research and writing.
Last year, after spending a couple of years in daycare, my son Michael (not his real name) entered kindergarten. My baby had finally become a student, and I was excited, hoping that the experience would help me sharpen my insights into educational issues. What I didn’t realize was that my faith in the school system would be shaken, especially my beliefs about parent involvement.
Parent involvement for what?
The school that my son attends boasts an excellent reputation for academic rigor, quality teachers, an enriched curriculum, a whole-child approach, and more. It’s also known for its many efforts to involve parents in fund-raising, chaperoning, reading books to the students, helping with parties, and so on. So it didn’t take long before my email inbox was flooded with event flyers and requests for volunteers. I didn’t mind. When I attended a school event, teachers and administrators smiled and told me how much Michael loves school.
Michael’s kindergarten teacher was a white woman with many years of teaching experience. In November, the first teacher-parent conference was scheduled, and I prepared my questions and discussion points to share. The teacher began by showing me the work that Michael had done in class and explaining how much progress he had made in math and reading. That was all good to hear. But, she went on, Michael sometimes got carried away by his silliness and misbehaved.
Exactly how, I asked, had he misbehaved? She said that he had a hard time following the “do-not-pop-the-bubble-policy” — that was the classroom rule about not touching other kids. Imagine that everyone has their own bubble, she explained; you don’t want to pop anyone’s bubble by coming too close to them. She told me that Michael often touched and hit others in a playful way, and she constantly had to remind him about the policy. Overall, she concluded, Michael is a good kid, but he needs to work on that rule.
I left the conference feeling disappointed, humiliated, and dumbfounded. I had expected something fundamentally different. I expected to have a conversation with the teacher. I expected the teacher to ask questions about Michael’s family life. I expected a true parent-teacher partnership for the benefit of his education. I expected the teacher to take an interest in my approach to raising Michael. But all I heard from his teachers — that year and the next — was information about where he stood on the spectrum from struggling to smart and where he stood on the obedience spectrum (from disruptive to respectful).
How can it be, I wonder, that teachers show no interest in my son’s culture, or in working with me as a partner to support his learning?
Those first two years of Michael’s schooling, it became clear to me that my expectations about the teacher-parent partnership had been naive. As the researcher Mary Christianakis (2011) has argued, when teachers encourage parents to be more involved, what they often mean is that they want parents to help them, specifically by getting our children to obey school rules and make their jobs easier. But do they care who I am, how I raise my son, what my struggles are as a parent? I haven’t seen that in my conversations with Michael’s teachers.
For immigrant and nonwhite families like mine, the absence of genuine, two-way communication tends to be especially hurtful. For example, consider the “do-not-pop-the-bubble policy,” the no-nonsense approach in Michael’s kindergarten. As an educator, I understand the rationale behind it, but the teacher’s enforcement of the rule also strikes me as a typical case of the sort of everyday institutional racism that has been widely discussed in the literature of critical race theory (e.g., Ladson-Billings, 1999; Sleeter, 1996) and critical white studies (e.g. McIntyre, 1997). I’ve devoted the past 15 years to teaching and preaching about such issues in college classrooms, but it really hit home to be on the receiving end of what so many minority parents and children endure every day.
A rule like “Do not touch other children” may sound neutral, favoring no students over others, but consider this: At home, I teach different values. I’ve never told Michael not to touch anyone or to keep out of their personal space. My husband and I cuddle with him all the time. That’s how we show love and affection, and not just among family members. In South Korea where I grew up, personal space or privacy wasn’t valued like it is for many Americans. Like everybody else I knew, my family — my parents, two siblings, and I — lived in a cramped apartment where all spaces needed to be shared. I didn’t even know it could be otherwise until I was invited to the house of a white family and was appalled to see that a 4-year-old boy had his own room, with his own bed and desk. To many Americans, making a child sleep alone may seem like a good way to foster independence at an early age; to me, it seemed like child negligence. Given our belief that young kids need constant supervision and care, my husband and I did not create a separate room for our son. Nor does he have his own bed. We haven’t taught him to see a clear boundary between “your” space and “my” space.
For immigrant and nonwhite families like mine, the absence of genuine, two-way communication tends to be especially hurtful.
As he gets older, Michael will learn code-switching — practicing different behaviors and observing different values in different settings. But for now, he has a hard time following the no-touching policy. Worse, because he brought his home culture to school, he has already been labeled as an unruly kid who struggles to follow the rules. “Mommy,” he told me in kindergarten, “I am in the bad behavior group at school.” I can’t help but worry that his teacher’s punitive reaction to his behavior has created a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I fear that instead of learning to appreciate the differences between his home and school cultures, he will learn to think of his home values as inferior.
How should I have responded to Michael’s kindergarten teacher? I could have tried to explain this cultural difference, but I did not. I didn’t feel like I could say anything at all. According to the teacher’s mental framework, children are either respectful or disruptive, and she had already put Michael in the second category. I didn’t want to be on the defensive, I didn’t want to apologize for my son’s behavior, and I didn’t want to try to educate the teacher. How could I carry out a conversation with someone who does not know me and does not try to know me, who offers no analysis and insights but only judgment? So I bowed out. I politely said thank you, and I left.
Until then, I had been an advocate of parent involvement. Despite my busy work schedule, I volunteered here and there. I was the parent who wanted to be genuinely involved in my son’s education. I wanted to have a collegial relationship with his teacher. But when I looked through the list of parent involvement opportunities, I found, to my dismay, almost nothing that would truly support learning. Mostly, we were asked to provide helping hands to teachers (by chaperoning or supervising lunch) or to help the school raise money. This was no parent-teacher partnership, I realized. It was a one-sided request, based not on mutual respect but on an appeal to help overwhelmed teachers manage their workloads.
In her research in an inner-city school, Christianakis (2011) found that the teachers “did not talk about or treat parents as partners or intellectual equals . . . They did not collaborate with the parents to support home or family goals, as is implied by the term partnership” (p. 172). My son’s school serves an affluent, upper-middle-class community, but that description resonates powerfully with me. I could be more involved with the school, but it would be false to call that a partnership.
Parents, teachers, and trust
Over the past two years, I’ve shared my story with many friends and with my students, and few of them have been sympathetic. There’s nothing unusual about what I experienced, they explain. Plus, they ask, how could teachers possibly accommodate every kid, given how many different home cultures students come from?
For my part, I remain frustrated, even more so to hear that my story is the norm in K-12 education. How can it be, I wonder, that teachers show no interest in my son’s culture, or in working with me as a partner to support his learning? Is this behavior (and I can only see it as a kind of institutional racism) so common that no one thinks to stand up for justice? How will it be rectified? How can I be empowered?
I wish that my son’s teachers would meet me at the very beginning of the year and engage me in a conversation that continues all year long. I wish that they would invite me to look at the curriculum and share my perspective. I wish that I had chances to offer my insights about the rules and values that are practiced at my child’s school. But while my voice — and my critical understanding of race — is highly valued in college classrooms, it doesn’t seem to have a place at my son’s school.
Had the school invited me to do so, I would have gladly discussed the issue of cultural mismatch and helped Michael’s teacher put his “misbehavior” in context. Had there been any real effort to build trust between me and the teacher, I would have been more than willing to lend a hand and become more involved. I hope that comes true one day. Hopefully, it will happen before Michael graduates from high school.
Christianakis, M. (2011). Parents as “help labor’: Inner-city teachers’ narratives of parent involvement. Teacher Education Quarterly, 38 (4), 157-178.
Ladson-Billings, G.J. (1999). Preparing teachers for diverse student populations: A critical race theory perspective. Review of research in education, 24 (1), 211-247.
McIntyre, A. (1997). Making meaning of whiteness: Exploring racial identity with white teachers. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Sleeter, C. (1996). Multicultural education as social activism. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
JUNG-AH CHOI (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor of education, St. Peter’s University, Jersey City, N.J.
Originally published in November 2017 Phi Delta Kappan 99 (3), 46-49. © 2017 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.